Will Ed Miliband Be Britain's First Jewish Premier?


Britain may be on the verge of electing its first affirming Jewish prime minister, Labour Party leader Ed Miliband.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron formally told Queen Elizabeth on Monday that he had dissolved Parliament in advance of the May 7 election, marking the end of his five-year term. But the campaign began in force last week with a televised debate between Cameron and Miliband.

Snap polls after the Thursday debate showed Cameron as the narrow winner, but an in-depth, two-day poll released Monday, conducted by YouGov for the conservative-leaning, Murdoch-owned Sunday Times, found Labour leading the Conservatives 36% to 32%.

Several smaller parties are also running, including the Liberal Democrats, junior partners in Cameron’s outgoing government, who score 8%, and the anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), at 13%. The Scottish Independence Party scored 45% in Scotland, which could hurt Miliband in a key Labour stronghold.

Miliband, 45, took over the Labour Party in 2010, the year Cameron became prime minister by defeating Labour incumbent Gordon Brown. Miliband won the party leadership in a surprise, close-fought primary battle against his older brother David, who had been expected to inherit the leadership after Brown retired.

Ed was an ally and protégé of Brown, who led the party’s union-backed left wing. David had been a close ally and protégé of Brown’s predecessor, Tony Blair, who led Labour’s centrist, business-friendly wing. Both had served in Brown’s cabinet, David as foreign minister and Ed as energy minister.

They had been personally close before Ed jumped into the leadership race, and promised throughout the primary to remain “best friends” and advisers to one another. After Ed’s victory, though, David sat quietly on the back benches of Parliament and then quit Parliament and moved to New York in 2013 to become head of the International Rescue Committee.

The brothers are heirs to one of the more notable legacies in British socialism as the sons of the late Ralph Miliband, a leading Marxist intellectual and one of the founders of the British new left. The elder Miliband had been born in Belgium to parents who fled Poland after World War I. He was introduced to socialism in his teens as a member of the left-wing Zionist youth group Hashomer Hatzair. Their mother, the Polish-born Marion Kozak, now 81, is an important progressive figure in her own right, known as a prominent feminist and human rights activist.

Ed Miliband made a number of strong public statements about his Jewish identity after winning the Labour Party leadership and has spoken frequently about it since then.

He gave an interview to the Jewish Chronicle in November 2010, immediately after the primary, and contributed a highly personal essay to a special 2012 issue of The New Statesman on British Jewish identity. In both he wrote of his identification with Israel, the Jewish people and Jewish values. He also lamented the fact that his parents hadn’t raised him as part of a tightly connected Jewish community and that he’d “missed out” on bar mitzvah and membership in a youth movement.

“I am not religious,” he wrote in The New Statesman. “But I am Jewish. My relationship with my Jewishness is complex. But whose isn’t?”

And he told The Jewish Chronicle:

His positions on Israel put him in a ticklish position. Heading a party with a strong anti-Israel wing in the unions and on campuses, he gets attacked from the left (here for example) for being too pro-Israel and from the Jewish community (see here and here) for criticizing Israeli policies and actions.

Speaking to the Board of Deputies of British Jews in 2013, he was quoted saying he “considered himself a Zionist but was critical of some Israeli government policies.” A year later, in an April 2014 talk at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he reportedly declined to call himself a Zionist, though he affirmed his belief that Israel is “a homeland for the Jewish people.”

In June 2014, just after the kidnapping of three yeshiva students in the West Bank but before the Gaza war began, he addressed Britain’s Labour Friends of Israel (text here), discussed his April trip to israel and presented his most detailed elaboration of his views on Israel. It ranged from his personal relationship to the country and the Jewish community to his position as Labour Party leader. He defended Israel’s right to protect itself from rocket fire but sharply criticized Israeli settlements in the territories. Among other things:

Not long after that, however, Miliband became a sharp critic of Israel’s conduct during the Gaza war. In October 2014 he ordered his party’s lawmakers to vote in favor of a nonbinding parliamentary motion recognizing the state of Palestine. That prompted reports of Jewish donors abandoning the Labour Party in protest.

Some commentators say Britain’s first Jewish prime minister was the influential 19th century statesman Benjamin Disraeli, who was born Jewish but baptized by his parents at age 12 and remained a practicing Anglican throughout his life. He sometimes referred to himself as Jewish, but had no active connection to Jewish affairs.

As it happens, Cameron’s predecessor as Conservative Party leader, Michael Howard, who served from 2003 to 2010, while the party was in opposition, was Jewish. The fact that a Jew has headed one or the other of Britain’s two major political parties continuously for the last 12 years has to complicate one’s understanding of the supposedly tenuous place of Jews in Britain today amid a numerous reports of rising anti-Semitism.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

Author

J.J. Goldberg

J.J. Goldberg

Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).

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